3 Israeli soldiers slain Islamic group claims credit

December 08, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- In one of the most lethal single attacks on soldiers since the intifada began, three Israeli army reservists were shot to death by gunmen in a car who sped by their patrol jeep in the occupied Gaza Strip yesterday.

The automatic-weapons attack was lethal evidence of the increasing use of guns in the 5-year-old Palestinian uprising. This year, 11 soldiers have been killed, as many as were killed altogether in the first four years of the intifada.

Israeli forces also have responded with increased use of weapons. The number of Palestinians killed by soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza dropped steadily to 82 last year, but rose this year to 101, according to official Israeli figures.

After the murders yesterday, Israeli officials put most of the 700,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip under curfew. Soldiers made a house-to-house search in the area of Beit Lehia, just north of Gaza city, where the shooting occurred. Officials would not say yesterday if any arrests had been made.

The Gaza Strip has been increasingly violent in recent days. A 15-year-old was killed in his classroom Saturday by Israeli troops.

Palestinian accounts, uncontested by the army, said soldiers opened fire on the school when children shouted and threw stones. At least 23 others were wounded in the incident and its aftermath, including a 3-year-old boy and 60-year-old woman, according to Palestinian reports.

The fundamentalist Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for yesterday's attack. Hamas opposes the Middle East peace talks that resumed yesterday in Washington. Security forces anticipated increased troubles this week because of the peace talks and tomorrow's fifth anniversary of the intifada.

"Terrorist organizations . . . [want to] demonstrate their ability to attack us after five years of the intifada," Israeli Chief of Staff Ehud Barak said on Army Radio.

"Extreme groups are trying to force their views on Israel. We will not make this possible, despite having to contend with casualties."

The soldiers killed yesterday were among the extra patrols sent to the tense Gaza Strip. The reservists were in their jeep about 5:30 a.m., when a white Peugeot car sped past with its high-beams on and opened fire, according to Israeli accounts. Palestinian sources said the car circled and returned, firing again into the jeep.

All three soldiers were killed immediately. An army spokesman said shells from a Kalashnikov automatic rifle were found.

Only once before have three soldiers been killed in a single attack, and the previous time was not in the occupied territories.

Matan Vilnai, the officer in command of the area of the Gaza Strip, also told Army Radio, "There have been incidents of shooting at cars, [but] not in this way."

Use of such weapons is particularly worrisome to the Israelis. The intifada began as an uprising of mass protests, and despite the steady trickle of Israeli casualties, the chief weapon of the Palestinians has been stones. Israeli forces have relied on superior force.

The deepening frustration in the territories, occupied by Israeli forces for 25 years, has led to nearly a 10-fold increase in shooting incidents since the intifada began, to nearly 350 this year, according to Israeli army figures.

This violence has fueled critics of the Labor government. Michael Eitan, an opposition Likud member of Parliament, yesterday called for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to resign his dual position as defense minister. The right-wing Tsomet party told Israel Radio the government should understand, "This is war."

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